What is a sports physical and who needs one?

Kid playing soccer in a field

Participating in sports offers your child numerous benefits including physical and social growth,

working as a team, and learning what it takes to accomplish goals. However, any type of physically demanding activity has health risks to consider. That’s why it’s important that kids get a sports physical before participation.

A sports physical, also known as a pre-participation exam (PPE), is a way for your healthcare provider to evaluate and assess your athlete’s physical fitness, family medical history, and any risk factors involved with participation. In this article we’ll cover why sports physicals are important, what happens in the physical, a physical exam checklist, how long an exam is good for, the costs, and where you can set up an appointment.

Why are sports physicals important for kids?

Sports physicals are important for several reasons. While your young athlete may appear healthy on the outside, many health-related issues go unnoticed without a check from your provider. These checks help identify existing health conditions. They help ensure safe practices and help prevent injury. They are also used to track growth and development. In addition, most organizations require sports physicals before participation.

What does the doctor do at a sports physical?

How providers conduct a sports physical will vary, but the purpose is the same: to check whether or not your child is healthy enough to participate in their desired sport. During this appointment, your provider will check your child’s current physical condition. They’ll look for any irregularities, which include chronic illness and issues that may affect participation.

Sports physicals play a crucial role in identifying structural abnormalities, musculoskeletal imbalance or weakness, or respiratory problems. If these problems are left untreated, your athlete might not perform at their best and they can be more at risk for injuries. Various vital signs are measured during the exam, such as blood pressure and heart rate. Providers will conduct various tests to determine musculoskeletal health, flexibility, joint strength, and posture. Their goal is to identify potential red flags early on so that preventative measures can take place.

In addition to physical well-being, providers will also check the athlete’s family medical history. This is to determine if any dangerous health conditions could have been passed down from their parents or grandparents. With this information, healthcare providers can tailor preventative strategies accordingly.

The sports physical is also an opportunity for providers to address concerns related to nutrition, diet, hydration, and even mental health. Physicians often provide counsel for your athlete on what things they should eat, drink, and do to better their overall wellness and obtain optimal athletic performance. If any irregularities are determined they may provide information or prescriptions to help prevent risks.

Sports Physical Exam Checklist

The recreational, competitive, or school league will often list items in a form for your provider to check. Your provider may also have their own physical exam form if one is not provided, and depending on your child’s medical history, your provider may focus more on certain areas than others.

In Utah, the most common form is created by the UHSAA (Utah High School Activities Association). This form includes general medical checks, musculoskeletal checks, and medical history information. Click here for an online pdf of this form or refer to the list below for the major physician systems that the doctor will examine.

  • Overall Appearance
  • Head/Neck
  • Eyes/Ears/Nose/Throat
  • Neck/Lymph Nodes
  • Back
  • Lungs/Heart
  • Arms/Legs
  • Reflexes/Coordination/Strength
  • Genitourinary (males only)

How long is a sports physical valid?

Sports physicals are good for one year. If your child is a multi-sport athlete, most leagues will not require an additional pre-participation physical if their sport takes place within the year of the exam. However, if an injury occurred within that time frame, it’s best practice to speak with your medical provider to ensure proper healing took place. Otherwise, further injury may occur.

How much does a sports physical cost?

For many people with health insurance, an annual sports physical (or annual “well check”) is free. Sometimes schools will have a physician come to the school occasionally to do sports

physicals, and these are usually provided without insurance at a discounted price. It is usually best to have your child see their regular doctor, since their doctor will have the best overall understanding of your child’s health history.

Where can I get a sports physical ASAP?

Many minute-clinics can offer walk-in physicals with no appointment needed. Although this may be convenient, we strongly recommend that you see your pediatrician for a complete physical.

They often have a more intimate knowledge of your child’s growth and development, and it will save you time filling out medical history documents that your pediatrician will have on file. In addition, your pediatrician can go beyond the sports physical evaluation and address things like acne, allergies, and chronic medical problems. Late summer and early fall can be busy times for sports physicals, so we recommend scheduling early to avoid the rush. Your child’s annual physical doesn’t need to be close to their birthday.

Sports physicals play an important role in ensuring your child-athlete is safe and healthy. By going through the exam, providers can look for any hidden health issues and provide personalized recommendations to increase your child’s athletic performance and safety.

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